Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 24, 2021

2021 HNSA Virtual Conference

I’ve had a beaut time at the 2021 Historical Novel Society Australasia (HNSA) Virtual Conference.

I binged on it all day Saturday, screening it on my laptop while I did some boring housekeeping work for the blog on my desktop. So it was a bit like listening to the radio, but with occasional pictures, and the chance to see what some of the authors look like!

The day began with a call to action from Julie Janson, a Burruberongal woman of the Darug Aboriginal Nation.  Her keynote address was called Recovery – Restoring, Reconciling and Re-imagining Lost Histories, and amongst other things it was a reminder that historical novelists using Australian settings need to take account of the protocols for including Indigenous history and characters. 

Founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia (HNSA) and program manager for the HNSA conferences, Elisabeth Storrs was next, in conversation with Guest of Honour Geraldine Brooks.  They began (of course) with the renewed popularity of Year of Wonders, and ranged over People of the Book, Caleb’s Crossing and her most recent The Secret Chord.  They talked about inspiration and research and other topics, but nobody mentioned Elisabeth’s own trilogy Tales of Ancient Rome which I really enjoyed!

After that was Chair Dianne Murray moderating a session called ‘The Indescribable Truth: Introducing the Holocaust to Young Readers’, with authors Susanne Gervay & Dee White.  Given the proliferation of adult books about the Holocaust (and the problem IMO that some of them are offensive populist trash), this was an important topic.  The point was made that it’s essential to be authentic, and to do the research properly, while at the same time being aware of the age and sensitivity of young readers.  Dee White, whose book Beyond Belief, Heroes of the Holocaust, used a sensitivity reader as part of the editing process, while Susanne Gervay is from the Jewish community so she had lived experience of knowing Holocaust survivors. Her book is called ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’ and both these books come with teaching notes.

From there it was to a session called ‘Bio-fiction: Which Lies Do We Tell?’ chaired by Kelly Gardiner in conversation with Sienna Brown, Kelly Rimmer and Sue Williams.  Of these authors I only knew  Sienna Brown and her debut novel, shortlisted for the 2020 ARA Historical Novel Prize which is a good example of historical fiction used to reveal hidden history. (See my review here).  I missed some of this session due to a domestic crisis involving black coffee and curtains, a wall and a table… Fortunately, the ticket entitles me to access for three months after the event so I can catch up again later.

‘Know Thine Enemy: WW2 novels written from the Axis perspective’ featured two of my favourite authors Steven Conte and Catherine Chidgey, along with Tania Blanchard and chair: Linda Funnell.  It is was interesting hearing their perspective about the  challenges of writing ‘the other side’, and the delicacy with which it needs to be approached.  Credibility was crucial and in the discussion about ‘how much did ordinary Germans know’ there was a veiled reference to ‘a boy in pyjamas’ which hinted that the speaker was none too impressed by that book! The research is demanding, and whereas Conte has revisited this angle in both his novels The Zookeeper’s War and The Tolstoy Estate, Chidgey found the writing of Remote Sympathy very draining and didn’t want to go there again.  Blanchard’s book Echoes of War was inspired by her father’s Italian heritage and is set in Mussolini’s fascist Italy.

‘Comic or Tragic? LGBTIQ Stereotypes and Tropes’ chaired by Greg Johnston featured Kelly Gardiner, Nigel Featherstone, and James Worner.  This discussion included a brief survey of books (such as Brideshead Revisited) which featured LGBTIQ characters though these were not always explicit.  The point was well made that there have always been LGBTIQ and yet their representation has until fairly recently has been meagre in literature.  Nigel Featherstone’s Bodies of Men directly tackles the myth that there are no gays in the ANZAC legend….

The next session was ‘Immigrant Stories: The Legacy of Forging New Lives’ chaired by Roanna Gonsalves. Having finally read The Fish Girl, I was delighted to see and hear Mirandi Riwoe talk about that and her other book Stone Sky Gold Mountain, which won the 2020 ARA Historical Novel Prize and the QLA Fiction Prize.  Suzanne McCourt is the author of The Lost Child set in Australia and her latest book is The Tulip Tree.  It features characters from Poland and its relationship with Russia from the 1920s through to 1954 in the Snowy Mountains.  Greg Johnston is the author of Sweet Bitter Cane, The Cast of a Hand, and The Skin of Water.

Dinner intervened so I’ll be catching up on the session I missed: Humanising the De-Humanised: Jewish Crypto-Histories featuring Richard Zimler, Tim Darcy Ellis, Bram Presser; and chaired by Gillian Polack.

My last session for Saturday was Gillian Polack in Conversation with Elizabeth Chadwick (who has so many novels in the marketplace I don’t know where to begin) and Robyn Cadwallader (author of Book Of Colours) where they had a genial conversation about the little details that really make historical fiction work.  The clothes, the food, the knick-knacks — all these these involve a great deal of research and the authors were generous about sharing the sources they used.

Sunday was quieter.  Amber wasn’t willing to forego her walk two days in a row, and I also got tied up in fruitless efforts to find a replacement window cleaning service.

I planned only to catch a couple of sessions. It was great to see ‘The Dark Heart: 1830-40s Australian Fiction’ with Jock Serong, (winner of this year’s HNSA Historical Novel Prize for The Burning Island) KM Kruimink (who won the 2020 Vogel for A Treacherous Country; and Catherine Jinks, along with chair Sophie Masson.  Here again, these authors generously shared their knowledge about what sources were available and how useful they were.  This conference has a lot to offer authors of historical fiction: workshops and seminars on all sorts of topics, making it very good value for aspiring writers.

There was a fascinating discussion about the role of shifting national boundaries in ‘The Aftermath: Tales in the Wake of WW2’ chaired by Gabrielle Ryan, Ella Carey, Alison Booth, and Rosetta Allan.  Along with cities and villages being destroyed, nationalities changed along with geographical boundaries, making for loss of identity: people can’t always know ‘who they are’ and where they belong.  There was also discussion about people, women especially, who had significant roles during the war and then had to just go back to ‘normal’ life.  Ella Carey’s The Lost Girl of Berlin is about a female journalist trying to get work after the war; Alison Booth’s The Painting is about dispossession in Hungarian immigrant lives in Australia; and Rosetta Allan is a Kiwi author whose novel ‘The Unreliable People‘ is set in Kazakhstan and Russia, and explores a character’s quest for identity in the recently collapsed Communist Russia when she is neither Russian, Korean nor Kazak.

Congratulations to Elisabeth and her planning committee on an excellent conference and many thanks for making it available online so that it could go ahead despite the pandemic.  Victorians have been brilliant at achieving vaccination targets and many aspects of lockdown have been relaxed with more to come when we reach 80% double vaxxed next week, but potential ticket buyers couldn’t have predicted that so we are very grateful to the HNSA!


  1. Thanks for the comprehensive wrap up!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds like a great day, Lisa – thanks for sharing! :D


    • A-hem, I did (of course) buy some books and will brings news of those to you in due course as well…

      Liked by 1 person

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